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Universal basic income in a COVID-19 world

| Wednesday, March 24, 2021

In 2019, I wrote a column analyzing universal basic income (UBI), a policy championed by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. There, I argued the UBI debate shouldn’t center on its effectiveness. The literature on UBI suggests that it’s a necessary remedy in combating the poverty and economic injustices plaguing our nation. In an analysis of basic income policies across the world — whether implemented universally or targeted at certain groups — the overwhelming result is economic growth, improved quality of life and an overall better society.

According to the Roosevelt Institute, a UBI financed in the United States through higher taxes on the wealthy and distributing the revenue to other income brackets leads to 12.56% economic growth over eight years. In Finland, a 2017 pilot program for the unemployed found higher levels of happiness, less stress and greater trustworthiness in institutions among participants. Also, one Japanese billionaire’s experiment with 1,000 participants found greater entrepreneurism among recipients. A study on Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, a UBI for residents drawn from the state’s oil and gas revenue, found that recipients became more educated.

The verdict is clear that UBI is a good economic policy. Yet, as I noted in my last column about UBI, its controversy is over its ethical implications. The welfare debate in the United States consistently concerns whether recipients deserve their benefits. If we cannot agree on benefits for the poorest of our nation, can we expect Americans to support benefits for all? A few years ago, the answer would’ve been a resounding no. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed deep economic, health and societal issues that make UBI more appealing.

A nation and world crippled by a global pandemic led to significant unemployment and drove countless families into bleak economic situations. Beyond that, the pandemic revealed the difficulties many face in acquiring the resources and opportunities necessary to build a better life. UBI offers an opportunity to rectify these problems, and its support has grown in the last year. A study examining public opinion in the United States and United Kingdom found increased support for UBI during the pandemic. Supporters cited UBI’s simple administration and ability to reduce stress and anxiety. Beyond that, a number of UBI programs have been implemented worldwide as a response to the pandemic.

In fact, the pandemic magnified the trend of support for UBI in the United States. The economic turmoil sparked calls for stimulus relief. According to a Monmouth University poll, 53% of Americans supported the $1,400 checks in the third stimulus package, while 28% wanted to see larger payments. Support for UBI as a permanent policy has grown in recent years, receiving 55% of registered voters’ approval in an August 2020 Hill-HarrisX poll.

UBI has also seen bipartisan support. In April 2020, 83% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans somewhat or strongly supported the government providing direct cash relief during the pandemic. The Basic Income March in September 2020 demonstrated widespread support and activism for UBI across the country. Moreover, politicians are crossing the aisle to support UBI or UBI-esque policy. The Trump administration’s policy on stimulus checks was starkly similar to Andrew Yang’s UBI proposal. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) suggested a $1,000 one-time check as a starting point. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) advocated for monthly checks during the pandemic. Former Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) also called for monthly checks for as long as the pandemic still raged. U.S. Representatives Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) proposed a UBI through a tax credit in March 2020. Other notable Democrats like Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also support policies similar to UBI. The policy is gaining traction among politicians as they realize the political impetus for such a policy during the pandemic.

Yet, a roadblock to the COVID-19 relief bills has been the stimulus checks themselves. Despite prominent support for a guaranteed income, Republicans and Democrats still disagree on the policy itself. Such circumstances are perplexing, and likely lie in concerns about UBI and whether it appeals to one’s political ideology. I will address those worries.

There is a concern about paying for UBI. However, analyses on UBI’s cost discovered that it has a similar price as other welfare policies, while having the possibility of significantly reducing poverty in the United States. That’s a significant return on investment.

Now, there is also concern that UBI would disincentivize people from working. Such a claim makes little sense, according to the literature. Alaska saw little to no effect on people’s participation in the workforce. A review of UBI experiments found that there is little warrant for the claim that a guaranteed income leads to long-term, massive unemployment.

Concerns about the practicality of UBI are not the only problems. To overcome these divisions, the case must be made to both parties that UBI is a bipartisan policy that appeals to all Americans. UBI can appeal to Republicans and Democrats ideologically. Conservatives would endorse a policy that significantly reduces the bureaucracy and dependency on the welfare state. Liberals would agree with UBI, as it’s a universal, unconditional program to provide relief through distributional measures.

While it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all, UBI is an important tool in addressing the systemic and unjust problems magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if it’s still opposed now, young Americans’ support for it indicates that UBI is the future. The question is not if, but when it will be adopted.


Blake Ziegler is a sophomore at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He loves anything politics, especially things he doesn’t agree with. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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